Religious women want to have fun too
High demand for help with sexual issues in religious society prompts Michal Prins to open institute offering counseling and guidance on marital relations. 'The problem is that religious women feel detached from their bodies. During adolescence, sexuality is pushed aside and saved for the day after the wedding,' she says
Until recently, many religious couples found themselves alone, facing a complicated situation in the bedroom. Careful questions to a rabbi or a repeated discussion with the bride's instructor were the maximum form of sharing and openness many desperate couples in need of help allowed themselves.
Michal Prins, a doctoral candidate in gender studies at Bar-Ilan University, realized there was a demand for help with sexual issues and, about two years ago, opened the Yahel Institute which offers counseling and guidance on marital relations. Prins herself did not believe how high the demand would be.
Then she introduced training courses for "marital relations instructors." Don’t call them sexologists or sex therapists, but rather women with guidance abilities serving as a sort of emergency and first aid station on the way to happy sexuality.
She doesn't know how to enjoy herself
Prins, 32, who is married with four children, dedicated her master's paper to the way religious women cope with their body and sexuality, a moment after the barriers have allegedly been lifted and sexual contact has been permitted.
"One of the conclusions from my paper was that marital relations are an issue which has not been dealt with much in the religious society," she says. "There is a lot of loneliness, and there is no one to turn to for information or counseling. That is actually why we set up the Yahel Institute.
"You can't talk about these things as part of a friendly conversation, and it won't come up in a meeting at the synagogue or on the bench in the garden. These couples cannot just pick up the phone and call a friend – even a good friend – and ask them to recommend an urologist or sex therapist."
Is the main problem in your opinion lack of knowledge?
"Not necessarily. Sexual relations are not something you can read about in a book and then excel in. Even if there was good bride guidance beforehand – and there is excellent guidance today – that still doesn't mean anything. Everyone tells her she's supposed to enjoy herself, but the next morning she finds out that it's more complicated than she had thought. Then they get stuck and there's no one to turn to.
"Judaism gives sexual relations a place. Judaism even sees it as an ideal, and a woman's sexual pleasure as a mitzvah. The couples know that it's something good. The heart of the problem is the detachment many religious women feel from their body and sexuality, because during the years of adolescence physicality is pushed aside, saved for the day after the chuppah."
First aid in sexuality
The sharp transition "on that day after," Prins notes, is sometimes revealed as an extremely difficult challenge. The separation between body and soul in Judaism leads, she says, to a wrong interpretation and puts the physical needs and sexual pleasure at a disadvantage.
Add that to the attitude of unstoppable giving, which characterizes the sector's women, according to Prins.
"In our society women are educated to give: To volunteer, national service, a career, children, their home. They give and give all the time, and then when it comes to her – she's not there. If a woman doesn't know how to stop and make time for herself, and say wholeheartedly, 'I deserve this, this is for me' – it won't happen."
'The prevalent discourse in the religious public before, and after, the wedding is: 'Give it to him even if you don't feel like it.' That's the worst thing' (Photo: Shutterstock)
The center, which was established about two years ago, aims to serve as the first address for any sexual-related problem. The initial acquaintance meeting between the sides is conducted by a "marital relations instructor," who mostly deals with issues touching on the subject: Psychology, social work or bride guidance.
Soon, by the way, the center will begin training men as sexual instructors as well.
"I intentionally stress that it's counseling and guidance, not sex therapy. We are not therapists. When there is an apparent problem, sometimes all it takes is guidance and direction, and a few focused meetings solve the issue.
"If it turns out during the initial meeting that there is need for an in-depth examination by specific professionals, we already have a fixed list of recommended people: Starting with sex therapists through physiotherapists for the pelvic floor to urologists, alongside accommodation to the couple's religious level."
Let's open it up
A standard meeting at the center usually starts on the phone, with a hesitant and shy voice on the other end of the line.
"We coordinate a meeting for the couple with the center's staff in order to understand their difficulties," Prins explains. "I haven't checked the statistics, but it's mostly difficulties around the woman's enjoyment of intercourse. If a man comes with a sexual performance problem, he is referred directly to a sex therapist and urologist. With a woman it's much more complicated.
"Perhaps it's something emotional she has been carrying around since adolescence, or from the first night? Something in the bedroom that isn't working right. On the other hand, a woman who comes and says she is in pain is immediately referred to a psychotherapist for the pelvic floor, in order to clarify the reason for the pain. Only after we know if it's something physiological, or an emotionally-based problem, we'll be able to offer the proper treatment."
Talli Rosenbaum, an AASECT certified sex therapist and the academic director of the training program, talks about "the sexual circle of life," in which sexual-related problems or difficulties may rise at any stage.
"A person is born a sexual creature, and the circle of life invites many challenges," she says. "Starting with sexual relations, pregnancies, children, menopause, as well as diseases and other complicated situations."
Rosenbaum stresses that the center provides basic tools for the arriving couples in a bid to start from the most basic and superficial level in the treatment and ensure that there are no differences in knowledge.
"When there is a problem, 'close the gaps.' Explain how the body works, what is an orgasm. Many people don't come with this knowledge. The goal is to hold an open and accessible talk, with maximum sensitivity."
'It's not a simple situation'
A significant part of the work the center's with the couples is aimed at instilling the recognition in the sexual differences between the man and woman and in the ability to overcome them together.
"You sometimes need to explain that 'she needs that, you need that.' Go back a bit and fix mistakes. It also depends very much on when they turn to us, if it's in the first six months of the marriage – or after 10 years, when the problems have already become a pattern."
Who in the couple pushes for therapy? We are talking about a conservative public, after all.
"The easiest thing is to say that it's the men, because they allegedly want more. I don't go to that direction at all. If a couple does things right, there is no reason in the world why they shouldn't be at the same level of desire.
"If a woman has learned how to enjoy herself and knows what she wants, if she has fun and is content, there is no reason for her not to want sexual relations on a frequent and regular basis. And there are quite a few cases in which the situation is the opposite.
There is no reason for women not to want frequent and regular sexual relations (Photo: Shutterstock)
"There is an amazing phenomenon here of men who pick up the phone and say, 'My wife isn't enjoying herself. Guide me through what I have to do so that she'll be content.' In my eyes it's amazing that what matter to them, at the end of the day, is her enjoyment.
"On the other hand, some of the women won't even sit down with me for a meeting," she reveals. "It's not an easy situation in any case, and you must know how to approach and touch such intimate and sensitive issues."
Prins says that there is sometimes one conversation which can solve years-long problems.
"I treated husbands who learned that before getting into bed, there are 'preparations.' You must wash the dishes or complete other domestic chores in order to give the woman time for herself. A woman need to be available for desire. In order to say, 'I deserve this,' 'I want this,' and definitely in order to initiate.
"She needs space, and so she needs help. A woman must know that she is loved, that her needs are honored, and that some of her traditional roles are being taken care of to let her make time for herself."
It sounds like secular couples could also use such guidance. Why are you only approaching religious couples?
"Personally, it's the area I am familiar with and deal with. Our expertise is in understanding the complexity of religious life on the seam line between religious education, modesty and radicalization – and the Western life. It's a place which creates a difficulty for those living in it.
"The prevalent discourse in the religious public, both before and after the wedding, is 'give it to him even if you don't feel like it,' 'make it possible, go with the flow.' That's the worst thing. It makes a woman not want to even more and develop an negative approach, and it's definitely not fair towards the women.
"I had a couple in which the husband asked a rabbi what he should do if his wife is not showing enough interest in marital life. The rabbi said, 'Have a talk with her, explain to her that it's very, very important to you, and that she should allow it.'
"These are destructive statements. They stem from a conservative worldview that women 'don't really enjoy themselves.' A woman doesn't want to have sex because it's not good for her, because she's going through something. Let's help her instead of forcing her into an act she doesn’t want.
"When I talk to the couples who approach me about the fact that a woman must reach satisfaction every time they have sex, my colleagues say to me, 'That's so 1980s,' and they are right. But we are a conservative sector. So religious people are 30 years behind everyone else. We have to work on it, but that's what should happen eventually. A woman is supposed to enjoy herself – always."